Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Christmas gift: a book to love

Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1999, 283 pages

             A strange, poetic, elegaic on roots and love.

             The McDonald clan migrated from Scotland and live on the same Cape Breton soil they first set foot upon, during the American Revolution. They have deep roots..

                Theirs is a tragic tale. An unknown fatality weighs on the land and its people. The Soil is scrabble poor, poverty forces the MacDonald men to the mines of Ontario and South Africa. Life is hard for the McDonalds and they're tough people. Yet somehow, though doomed - as we all are, they have survived with dignity. "No Great Mischief" is an elegy to common folk, whom MacLeod loves, facing adversity and fatality with dignity.

                 Grandma's mantra, "All of us are better when we're loved", cycles like the returning beam of a lighthouse through the concluding chapters and ends the book. Another popular family mantra, "Blood is thicker than water",  is ironically betrayed by a young man from the branch of the clan most enamoured of the phrase.

                  "No Great Mischief" is really a story about love. MacLeod tells us that, facing the void, facing adversity, facing pain, our sole real arm is love: love between spouses, in family, love of the land, love of life itself.

                   A sad, elegant poetry runs through the text, giving the feel and tone of epic or legend:

                   "On the east coast, the native peoples who move across the land, harvesting, are stilled also.. They are older than the borders and the boundaries between countries and they pay them little mind."

                   "Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer day. Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disembowelled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind", echoing the migrations of the McDonalds inland, to Ontario's mines, driven by poverty, not desire. Their hearts too remain behind in Cape Breton.

                    But there is more than poetry in this tale. One could call it a "philosophical novel" in the sense that MacLeod invites us to a deeper reflection on life and real values but subtly, without posing a specific question; it is left to the reader to pose his own questions. Thus MacLeod ceaselessly points to quotidien tragedies, ironies and absurdities: the young man who graduates from dental school on the same day that his namesake cousin loses his head in a mining accident.

                    MacLeod's universe is not a happy one though it has room for joy, lots of wonder and, above all, it honors love which, ultimately, redeems this lost world.

                    Alistair MacLeod is a national treasure though I fear he risks being forgotten: he lacks the imposing oeuvre whose sheer volume demands attention. Worse, he has favored the short story, not in favor in academic circles.

                    Nevertheless, his work fits common definitions of "great literature" well enough: universal in scope while parochial in content. MacLeod's prose is idiosyncratic - difficult if not impossible to translate or paraphrase without losing much. At its best, his work has the punch, the bang for the buck, all great literature gives. I recall reading his slim volume of short stories, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" and ended up knowing more about the maritime soul than if I had waded through several thick academic tomes on settlement history and economic activity. This is surely a mesure of great art: much is said in little space and the heart is moved.

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